Megan has been on a work placement in the archives
The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine’s Centre for Sexual and Reproductive Health collection contains over seven-hundred descriptions of posters relating to AIDS/HIV from around Europe, giving education on the disease, as well as advice on prevention and care. These posters are currently being repackaged and catalogued as part of the HIV/AIDS cataloguing project, funded by the Wellcome Trust. As part of my work experience programme with the School’s archives, I was assigned to help in this process, preparing posters for storage and updating their details in the CALM database.
Each poster is catalogued with varying pieces of information, including country of origin, commissioning agency, target audience, whether it’s part of a particular campaign or series, year of release, and a translation of its message if it’s not in English. These details provide an interesting look into the different approaches taken by different nations, governments, or health organisations towards different groups of people (e.g. heterosexual couples, gay men, young people, travellers.) Whereas many countries went for a more graphic approach with images of sex, nudity, and bondage equipment, others chose simple words and diagrams to get their messages across in a less explicit manner. A lot of this was due to the religious or social beliefs of the country, with more liberal areas like The Netherlands unafraid to show sexual acts (or advise on cleaning needles, although also stating that drug use was not recommended), and more religious countries avoiding condoning the use of condoms and other birth control.
Along with the images used, the messages put across also vary greatly, some examples being the promotion of condom use, warnings against risky behaviour such as sharing needles and sleeping with prostitutes, information on cleaning needles and safely putting on a condom, and messages of solidarity from various members of society. Many of the posters’ aims were to prevent infection, end discrimination, and improve treatment and care for victims of the disease, but again these strategies vary from nation to nation. The two main approaches can be seen in Wellings and Field’s book Stopping AIDS: AIDS/HIV Public Education and the Mass Media in Europe: ‘control and isolation’ and ‘cooperation and inclusion’. The former, naturally, revolves around controlling behaviour and mandatory testing, whereas the latter provides health services, protection, and voluntary testing.
Another important factor to be considered in these campaigns was an attempt to defeat the stigma of AIDS, most importantly the stigma of the ‘gay disease’. Many organisations chose to produce posters showing heterosexual as well as homosexual couples to show that anyone in a sexual relationship, or using needles, could be affected and that excluding yourself from these preventative measures was not something to be advised. Solidarity was a main theme used in an attempt to prevent stigmatisation, giving a face to the testimonials of those affected and showing how they are just like anyone you know, as well as removing the fear from everyday situations by listing contact-activities that could not spread the disease.
Having experience working in an archive that housed a lot of posters, it wasn’t difficult getting back into the routine of repackaging and cataloguing. However this was my first time using the CALM archive software, having used a different database in the past, but after a few entries I soon learned my way around it. The catalogue already held information on many of the posters and it was my task to elaborate on their details, doing research on various organisations and campaigns if need be. For this Rochester University’s Rare Books and Special Collections AIDS Education Posters database, as well as the Wellcome Library, proved incredibly useful, giving accurate translations and backgrounds on campaigns.
Some of the posters I found most interesting were the ones aimed at people travelling to other countries. Mainly they warned travellers to always have safe sex on holiday, but some were more informative, showing what condom wrappers looked like in different countries, in order to save on translation struggles, and pointing out which were the safest. Travel was an important area to be covered in promotion of AIDS/HIV prevention as the disease was so widely spread across Europe, holiday makers must have been a large factor in the scale it did end up covering. This scale is exactly why the media was used in such an enormous way, one not seen before in public health promotion. Posters, postcards, badges, billboards, television, cinema, radio, and leaflets were all areas covered by these campaigns, making it hard for people not to be told what they needed to know.
My experience in the archive department working on the AIDS project has been both enjoyable and eye-opening. The great variety of tasks I was given was more than I could’ve asked for, with each task helping cement the idea in my mind that working in archives is what I want to do. Learning is brought to a whole new level when archives are used; finding minute details about such specific topics and discovering their impact on people across time is incredibly fascinating. I feel very fortunate to have been a part in this project.